Is Linearity in RPGs always a bad thing?By: Dimsum_Queen posted at Apr 30, 2010 4:31 pm
Western game critics are ambivalent about the concept of linearity in RPGs. Take Eternal Sonata, of which IGN's Ryan Clements notes that "the structure of Eternal Sonata is very linear, though I never found myself frustrated by that setup," while others critics are clearly unhappy about it. Andrew Fitch at 1UP wrote that "the brusque story could have been tolerable if Eternal Sonata's world were fun to explore. Unfortunately, it's about as linear as any RPG..." Even one of the best RPGs to ever grace the PS2, Final Fantasy X, was criticized by Gaming Maxx (a now defunct website) who wrote that "isn't as great as past FF's have been due to its lack of freedom." Even I have heard too many people say the same thing about FFXIII: "Yeah, I played until this scene, then I stopped. It's so linear and boring." Since when is boring synonymous with linear?
But first, let us clarify linearity. Linearity in respect to RPGs, is when the plot moves forward in only one direction leading to only one conclusion or ending typically. In a linear RPG, players usually control only the hero and basically follow the hero on his/her adventure. Whether or not that game has tons of side-quests (a.k.a Final Fantasy VII) does not matter. It is still linear if the story is fixed. It does get a bit fuzzy when there are different endings like the Suikoden series, but if the events in the game happen irregardless of your actions, then it is most probably a linear RPG in a snazzy, shiny form. At its heart, most JRPGs are linear and happy to be so. It is their distinctive quality. Like those epic stories ala Lord of the Rings, linear RPGs typically tell the story of good versus evil. Through sacrifice and selflessness, the hero can overcome all obstacles. For most gamers, it is a love or hate relationship. With the advent of sandbox games like Grand Theft Auto, western RPG makers started implementing the open world feature in RPGs. Last year's Borderlands is a prime example. Although it is an RPG, it is only an RPG in the barest, technical sense - the leveling up mechanism, missions, and looting. The plot is just flimsy excuse for gamers to loot and shoot through Pandora with their friends.
I always thought of the sandbox style RPGs as a completely different beast from the traditional RPGs. One is all about the world and the environment, the other more about the characters. Traditional RPGs goe beyond, "whee! let's check out this whole new universe," to "what makes him/her tick? Why must he/she save the world?" If you are always fascinated by how a human mind works, then linear RPGs are wonderful. Instead of exploring the world and doing quests with NPCs, linear RPGs generally tend to offer gamers a stronger plot with in-depth characters. Whenever I think back on all the Diablo clones I have played, I remember how much loot and money I got. I even remembered where is the best spot for looting. I remembered how much gold I got from killing a specific boss. But that is all materialistic. Whenever I think back to all the linear RPGs I've played, I always remember the characters. I am still tickled whenever I think of Princess Anastasia chasing after Kurando in Shadow Hearts Covenant. I still feel sad whenever I think of Alice and Rufus unable to get together at the end of Valkyrie Profile. I even remembered the shock when finding out that Queen Arshtat from Suikoden V killed her own husband. In comparison, the characters in Diablo are pretty much tools. For example, as much as I enjoyed my occasional chit-chats with Cain in Diablo and getting free item identifications, he does not contribute much to the plot or the enjoyment of the game. Butchering demons is the main source of enjoyment in the game, not hanging out with Cain. Whenever I play a linear RPG, I identify myself with the characters. They becomes a part of me and inspire feelings of awe or, for the villains, disgust. Sandbox style RPGs cannot do that.
I believe that linear RPGs are here to stay as they are the emotional core of gaming. It tells non-gamers that there is a world beyond shooting and looting, a world of stories, of valor and heroes. A world where we can learn important ideas of friendship and teamwork through the power of stories. This eternal plotline was used as a teaching tool in the past when telling stories were the primary mode of entertainment. Stories that strive to teach humans how to become a "better" people, the personal qualities needed to overcome difficulties, and the importance of friendship and love. It may sound like emotional drivel to us now, but it is a lesson we all learned when we were younger. We are at an era where developers believe that instant gratification equals profit, that FPS and MMOs are the way to earn money, and that Farmville is the future of gaming. But they forget that humans have always relied on stories for comfort and moral directions. For thousands of years, we have always heard the similar tale of good versus evil, re-spun into different forms and shapes. We never got tired of it. Similarly, we will never get tired of linear RPGs because of its heavy focus on plot and characters. True, linear RPGs will never be as popular as it was a couple of years back. Like reading, it has fallen out of favor because people cannot and does not want to spend all time on it. But for the rest of us willing to devote a little time to linear RPGs will find that a well written RPG brings characters to life, characters that you will remember like a friend. Just like how Frodo and Aragorn jumps of the pages and becomes familiar to us, so does Yuna and Tidus transcends a game, touches our heart, and makes us remember them for life.
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